At Assassins’ Gate Name of the Game: Don’t Piss Off Shia

“They’re throwing shoes at us and telling us they’ll kill us, and we can’t do anything about it,” said U.S. Army Specialist Robert Stacy, 21, of Tulsa, Okla., as he stood guard at the Assassins’ Gate. This darkly named arch stands at the main entrance to the main palace in Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority is headquartered. Thus it serves, in a way, as the border between American aspiration and Iraqi exasperation.

Inside the palace, which is five minutes by shuttle bus from the gate, coalition hordes work very hard in surroundings that are very soft. At first, it seems that the softness comes from the overflow of luxury that Saddam left behind, from the marble staircases and chandeliers to the enormous number of enormous couches and chairs with enormous pillows (“Have a huge seat,” a British official recently invited me). But, in fact, the scent of privilege derives from the general presumption of convenience, the sense-palpable here and absent almost everywhere else in Baghdad-that electricity is a thing that runs, that telephones are things that ring, that schedules are things that exist.

Outside, Iraqis complain. Just after the war, the local people regarded this gate as a place to come and plead: for work, for medicine, for news of their long-missing son. At that time, the typical supplicant might have been a covered woman with a worry-contorted face. Now, Iraqis seem to regard it as a place to come and wait or be kept waiting, and the Iraqi in question is likely to be a well-pressed business type who genuinely seems to have an appointment with some great, unreachable being behind the gate. (“It’s like going to Oz,” an Army officer groused to me.)

Every so often, though, the Assassins’ Gate still feels the fury of real emotion. Just before I came across Specialist Stacy there, in the middle of October, there had been a mass protest against the coalition’s arrest of a Shia cleric allegedly possessed of many weapons. To hear Specialist Stacy tell it, the demonstration had sped along on the usual route of collective rage, then slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt just before it reached the point of violence.

“The fear they had is gone,” he observed of the Iraqi attitude toward the likes of him. “The rules of engagement have changed, and they know that. Unless we’re shot at, we can’t do anything.”

Insofar as Specialist Stacy was voicing frustration at what he seemed to view as a jelly-bellied response to the demonstrators, he was describing the rules of a game that those behind the gate well know they need to play with many of those outside it. It is a tricky and confusing game that, for the Americans, isn’t much fun to play-for the upside is mere non-failure and the downside is total disaster.

To win the game will be to keep to tolerable levels the collective contempt, rage, pressure and violence from the largest single segment of Iraq’s population. To lose the game will be to lose everything.

The name of the game is: Don’t Piss Off the Shia.

The reasons for Americans to play the game are many and clear. The Shia-the Islamic minority, but Iraqi majority, who believe that only family members of the prophet Muhammad, beginning with his cousin and son-in-law Ali, have the right to lead Muslims-comprise at least 60 percent of the Iraqi population. As the people most oppressed by Saddam Hussein, they were the most given to euphoria as his government fled.

But they are also, by and large, the least educated, the least secular-minded and the most destitute of Iraqis. Therefore, they have proven to be among the most susceptible to the poignant delusion that the removal of Saddam would be immediately followed by the reign of heaven on earth-or, at the very least, by a swift and steady rain of jobs, goods and services to their patronage-parched areas. What has followed instead has been the thud of realization that Iraq is still a ruin, and they are still buried under it.

To play Don’t Piss Off the Shia is to confront the unfathomable forces of religious fanaticism, cultural pride and tribal honor. Then again, it’s also a lot about loot.

The game consists, to an irritating degree, of gauging and then neutralizing the influence of one person, Muqtada Al-Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric who is the son of Muhammad Al-Sadr, the assassinated leader for whom Saddam City, the Baghdad slum, was renamed Sadr City. Mr. Sadr has clearly scented the potential for political relevance in playing the role of spoiler.

The game involves praying for the continued life and relative good will of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the septuagenarian who might be called the leading leader of the Shia, and who is playing the role of sage grandfather. Unfortunately, it also involves reading the old man’s mind. Though he has eschewed the notion of any straightforward participation in politics, Ayatollah Sistani has demonstrated a real zest for using his great power to throw all the other powers off balance. Just this week, for instance, he withdrew his members from the town council of the holy city of Karbala-a council that he personally formed after the war, and that had just been reconstituted in an effort to make and keep some kind of peace between his group and Mr. Sadr’s, who have been fighting, and on occasion killing, each other for at least a month now.

From an American point of view, it is tempting-even comforting-to divide the Hawza, or Shia seminary movement, into the “good” Sistani people and the “bad” Sadr people; or, alternatively, into the “bad” Sadr people, who can’t be dealt with, and all the other Shia, who can.

This is not a groundless contention: There are certainly people who fit squarely into one category or the other, and today the number of people whose first loyalty is to Ayatollah Sistani, by every account, far outweighs the number who favor Mr. Sadr. Nonetheless, like so many other either-ors in Iraq, this one is deceptive.

For one thing, it is sobering-although hardly surprising-to realize that the best reaction the Americans can expect from the No. 1 leader of Saddam’s No. 1 victims is that his public stance of cool aloofness toward the occupation will not become one of hot anger. (It’s not surprising because, even if the coalition forces had not put a wrong foot forward since March, love for and loyalty to Western secular occupiers is just not a natural thing for an Islamic cleric. It is sobering because in order to believe otherwise, one would have had to be quite drunk indeed.)

For another thing, it has become so common to think of the Sistani faction as the side of the angels that it has also become easy to slide right over the irony that a faction which the coalition rightly regards as essential to its survival here is still a faction for whom the separation of religion and state in anything remotely like the form known in Western democracies is anathema. Anyone who thinks that a democratic Iraq will have nothing in common with a theocratic Iraq should think again. For the moment, though, the real point about the Shia is that almost no point about their politics is fixed. Even as there is a great deal of animosity between the factions of Sadr and Sistani, there is a also a great deal of fluidity.

In the middle of October, I went to see Sayed Daoud Hashim Al-Moussawi, a minor member of the Hawza whom I had first met last spring, and who had struck me as a Sistani person. His house, in a village that is about an hour south of Baghdad, was mattress-on-the-floor modest. With his white beard and jutting bones, Daoud looked too old to have little girls, but two of the three little girls in the house were his, and their games were clearly audible through the sheet separating the parlor from family quarters.

I asked Daoud how he would characterize the difference between Mr. Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani.

“One thinks, ‘I am religious and so I have to stay out of political things,’” he said, meaning Sistani. “The other thinks, ‘I am religious, so I have to get into political things.’”

Just by making that ready and rather common comparison, Daoud was striking a conceptual balance between two men and two mentalities. Depending on all kinds of other factors, the balance could tip either way.

First is the question of age. In discussions of Ayatollah Sistani, Bob Dole constantly springs to mind, because in Iraq, the only way to be considered too old to run something is to be dead and buried. Ayatollah Sistani’s disciples praise him as incorruptible and reasonable, but they tend to bundle up both qualities in the fact of his age. By the same token, many consider Mr. Sadr unproven and hot-headed not only because he is unproven and hotheaded-to put it charitably-but because he is young.

Apart from his age, the political appeal of Sistani to Iraqis is that he is (supposedly) apolitical. If one remembers nothing else when thinking about the democratization of this country, one must remember this: Iraqis hate politics and politicians to a degree that even the most disaffected Westerner would be at pains to match. After all, Iraqis have come to know involvement in politics as outlandishly dangerous or dishonest, if not both. If Mother Teresa rose from the dead, embraced Islam and said that she wanted to found a political party here, millions of Iraqis would automatically assume that she was a crook. Thus, even if Mr. Sadr had not acquired his current reputation for troublemaking, his youth and the plainness of his avarice for influence would put him at a certain disadvantage.

Then again, Mr. Sadr’s weaknesses are his strengths. If Mr. Sadr is young and impetuous, so are an awful lot of Iraqis. Moreover, at least one resonant chapter of history is on his side.

“Khomeini was in Iraq for 15 years,” Daoud said, referring to the Iranian ayatollah’s exile in Najaf. “He told our religious people that they all have to be one unit, and they have to prepare, because if the Baathists become strong enough, they will kill all the religious people.”

Then, of course, the Baathists became strong, and many religious people were indeed killed. For Daoud, and others like him, the lesson is clear: “We need to involve ourselves in politics.’”

“Now the Americans are wondering what to do with Muqtada Al-Sadr,” 33-year-old Sheikh Hamza Al Taie observed, accurately and not without a perceptible hint of glee. “If they kill him, it’s going to be a big disaster. If they believe in the democratic way, they have to talk with him.”

It was the middle of October. Hamza was in his office at the Al-Moyad mosque in Karbala. Karbala is the scene of the A.D. 680 battle that killed the Imam Hussein, the son of Ali and grandson of the prophet; it holds the shrine containing the remains of Hussein and those of his half-brother, Abbas. As could be seen from the bullet marks on the walls around it, the mosque had, a few nights before, been the scene of a shoot-out between local partisans of Mr. Sadr and partisans of Ayatollah Sistani.

Back in Baghdad, the day after the episode, I had coincidentally interviewed the top international adviser to the Iraqi police. He had told me that the violence in Karbala, along with that day’s bombing of the Turkish embassy, had been enough to keep him from making a scheduled trip to Washington. A day or two later, I was therefore surprised when I asked Akram Al-Yasri, the coalition-approved mayor of Karbala, about it. The mayor chortled, in a boys-will-be-boys sort of way, that it had merely been an exchange of gunfire between local youths-nothing to worry about, my dear.

Worried, as always, by the distressingly common tendency among officials here to approach problems with a sort of reverse Field of Dreams faith-if you ignore it, it will go-my translator, Ahmed Abdullah Saleh, and I moved on to the mosque, where we found Hamza.

To be honest, Hamza was the first Sadr associate I have met who did not make me want to wash his mouth out with soap. This impulse arises not chiefly because these fellows talk filth, although they sometimes do; I met my first Sadr disciple back in May, at a vintage-1991 mass grave which, he volunteered with talking-point suavity, was the doing of the first George Bush and the Jews. But even more consistently galling than what they say, is what they emanate: an unpleasant mix of counterfeit superiority and authentic arrogance-with a bonus, for the ladies, of full-stop misogyny.

Hamza, though, wasn’t like that. He welcomed my translator and me into his office, and fed us lunch. Although he told a story that was shot through with self-serving inaccuracies, he attempted nothing like the whopper that the mayor had tried to hand us. And, overall, he told a good deal of truth about the difficulties between the two factions-difficulties that, in some key particulars, have less to do with Allah than with moolah.

According to Hamza, after the U.S. came to town, the two parties had declared a working truce regarding three chronic points of contention. One was the custodianship of the two shrines of Hussein and Abbas, another was Friday preaching privileges at the shrines, and a third was the disposition of items-especially cars-that had been looted from the mutually despised Saddam regime.

On the first matter, they agreed to share the maintenance and security duties for the shrines-which, by the way, are places where pilgrims leave money. Especially after a huge festival, of which there are several every year in Karbala, the great men’s graves are full of dinars. On the second matter, the two groups agreed to alternate, the Sistani people leading prayers on one Friday, the Sadr people leading on the next. On the final matter, Hamza contended, the two groups agreed to joint oversight of the loot.

Team Sistani begs to differ.

“We don’t allow anybody to use the cars,” countered Abdul Mehdi Al Karbalia, a surprisingly calm, almost affable Sistani lieutenant. When we met him, he was wearing slightly spotty, thick-framed glasses and drinking orange soda, but he had played a prominent (and disputed) role in the hostilities. A few days later, he would be the target of an assassination attempt. A few weeks after that, he would be the target of rumors that he was stealing money from the shrines for his personal use.

If so, excessive funding had yet to flow in the direction of his workplace. Abdul Mehdi’s office in Karbala was across a garbage-laden ditch, down an alley and up a narrow, winding staircase-but not, alas, away from the smell of sewage.

“We are not allowed to use those cars,” he said. “Even now I pay for a taxi to go home and come back.”

The postwar truce between the groups did not last long. Within a couple of months, the alternating Friday prayers had turned into alternating accusation-hurling. Some of the accusations had to do with stealing: Sistani’s people argued that all things looted should be returned to the government, and the Sadr people argued that after all they went through under Saddam, they are entitled to his leftovers-to which, they also insisted, the Sistani people were secretly helping themselves.

One day in mid-October, all this tension rolled up in a car coming from Basra, and stopped at a checkpoint in Karbala. Karbala was bursting with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the birthday of the last imam, among them the people in this car, who were Sadr partisans visiting from Basra. At one of the many security checkpoints manned by this or that religious partisan, a Sistani person by the name of Sheikh Maitham determined that the car had been looted and confiscated the car. In response, it had been reported, a Sadr delegation then went to the checkpoint and abducted Maitham, along with a friend, and held them hostage at the mosque. This, Hamza contended, was not quite fair.

“We didn’t hit him or anything,” said Hamza. “He was really happy because we didn’t treat him badly.”

Hoping to use their guests as leverage, the Sadr people, Hamza said, demanded that the Sistani people release the car, and also that they share the proceeds from the graves. The Sistani people said no. Nonetheless, Hamza (implausibly) claimed that at some point in the afternoon, they decided to release the guests.

In any event, after evening prayers, Abdul Mehdi of the spotty glasses and orange soda started shouting into a loudspeaker, though just what he shouted is a matter of dispute. According to Hamza, he shouted that there were Saddam loyalists and fedayeen in the mosque, and that the people of Karbala must rise against them.

“God is my witness,” Abdul Mehdi swore, claiming that he started shouting only after the firing started, and then only for the firing to stop. Either way, firing there was, and it was loud enough, Hamza said, that his family heard it from his home, more than three miles away.

Whatever started it, the gunfight lasted until the next morning, by which time some 50 Iraqis had been injured or killed.

Given that they remain fierce in the fight that continues between them, it is odd, and almost sweet, that Sistani people and Sadr people can be politic in conversation about each other-at least when they are not accusing each other of robbing Iraq blind. But that other quarter of the time, they draw a line that should remain clear in the minds of all who play Don’t Piss Off the Shia.

When asked directly, both Abdul Mehdi and Hamza refused to give any real opinion about the leader of the other pack.

“We disagree with him,” said Abdul Mehdi of Sadr. “But he is one from the religious Shia.”

As for Hamza, it was only in praise of his man Sadr that he cared to damn Ayatollah Sistani.

“We believe in him, and we are not going to give up,” he said of Mr. Sadr. “He is better than the old people who just stay in their rooms and keep their mouths shut.”